The Emergence of State Societies Research Paper

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The earliest state societies emerged independently— both Old World (in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus River valley) and New World (in Mayan regions of Mexico and in the Peruvian Andes)—after several thousands of years of village life sustained by domesticating plants and animals and a storable surplus of agricultural products.

In both the Old World and the New World the earliest state societies developed from village populations engaged in successful, surplus agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals. Although they were different from each other in many ways, they can be generally characterized as highly stratified societies in which lived farmers in the countryside and urban residents, royalty and slaves, merchants, priests, craftspeople, elites, and peasants. Although contacts took place prehistorically among regions, the emergence and evolution of the earliest state societies (a rapid rather than a gradual process) was independent.

Most of the earliest states were not territorially extensive; rather, they were a collection of politically independent cities (or city-states) that shared a cultural tradition and interacted as “peer-polities.” The earliest cities were not small but rather covered several square kilometers in which lived tens of thousands of people. They were centers of innovation in the arts and the recording of information, including the first writing, which appeared in some but not all of the earliest cities and states, and they contained massive ceremonial monuments, such as temples, pyramids, palaces, plazas, and large works of art. These monuments were designed by architects in service to kings and gods, enriched by the products of craftspeople and traders, and were built by thousands of laborers who owed their existence and livelihoods to the highest stratum of society.

In the Old World the first cities and states appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt by about 3200 BCE, in the Indus River valley in Asia by about 2600 BCE, and in north China by about 1700 BCE. In the New World the first cities and states emerged in South America along the Peruvian coast and in the central Andes by about the middle of the first millennium CE, in the Maya region of lowland Mesoamerica (Mexico and northern Central America) by about 200 CE, and in the highland region of Mesoamerica, in the cities and states of Monte Alban and Teotihuacan, by about 200 CE. New archaeological and historical research into the emergence of the first states has altered considerably what scholars think about these societies.

The Old World

In Mesopotamia in southwestern Asia the earliest and best-known city-state was Uruk, which at about 3200 BCE reached a size of about 3 square kilometers with a population of about twenty thousand. A few hundred years earlier in Mesopotamia, only modest villages had flourished, none with a population of more than a few hundred. In Uruk the first writing in the world was invented, transforming earlier systems of recording information. The first texts on clay tablets were mainly economic records of deliveries to and disbursements from temples and palaces. However, about 15 percent of the texts consisted of lists of ranks and professions, cities, and names of trees, stones, and even the gods. In short, the first writing was accompanied by the creation of the first schools and materials for the education of scribes.

The city of Uruk was dominated by a precinct of temples, storehouses, treasuries, and other ceremonial buildings and plazas. New forms of art were created, from large, carved stone vases to small cylinder seals on which a miniature scene was depicted and an inscription placed. These seals were then rolled over wet clay, either on tablets or on pottery vessels, to indicate the ownership of a commodity or responsibility for a transaction. Uruk, like other Mesopotamian cities at the end of the fourth millennium and beginning of the third millennium BCE, was the center of a limited area that included two or three towns, a few hamlets, and farmsteads. The capital cities of the city-states (microstates) contained most of the population in Mesopotamia, the countryside having been substantially depopulated with the growth of the big cities. No political unity existed among the cities and city-states, although the culture of the cities was distinctively and commonly Mesopotamian. Political unification in Mesopotamia did not occur until almost a thousand years after the emergence of the first microstates, and it did not last long because the Mesopotamian cities reestablished their venerable autonomy.

In contrast to Mesopotamia, Egypt, although lying geographically near Mesopotamia and having contact with it in prehistoric times, was an entirely different kind of state. Instead of a state of politically independent city-states, Egypt at about 3200 BCE was unified, its northern part (Lower Egypt) and southern part (Upper Egypt) brought together into a single state in which it remained for most of the next three thousand years. Egyptian unity made sense because Egypt was mainly a long strip of land along the banks of the Nile River and the land of the Nile River delta. The Nile’s predictable and mostly reliable floods provided not only necessary water but also the fertile silts that were the basis for agricultural productivity.

After thousands of years of small villages, urban systems quickly appeared during the late fourth millennium BCE, the first being Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, which reached a size of nearly 3 square kilometers, about the size of Uruk and about the same time but not as densely settled, having a population of nearly ten thousand. The first writing in Egypt, hieroglyphic writing, differed in nearly every respect from Mesopotamian writing and appeared at about the same time. The subject of the first Egyptian texts was mainly a celebration of Egyptian kingship and had little to do with the economy of the land. From the start Egyptians displayed a strong sense of political order and stability that was guaranteed by the king and the gods.

Cities in the Indus River valley, in today’s Pakistan and north India, emerged extremely rapidly after a long period of farming communities. By about 2600 BCE the most famous cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa flourished, both of about 2 square kilometers and more than thirty thousand inhabitants. At least a half-dozen other major cities also existed along the Indus River and its many branches and also along another major river, now dried up completely. As in Mesopotamia, the Indus River valley cities were politically independent, although their material culture had characteristic commonalities. The decorations on pottery, the use of standard weights and measures, and the Indus valley script were shared among the cities.

Mohenjo Daro was a carefully constructed metropolis. A ceremonial center included a variety of structures, such as an audience hall and ritual bath. The residential section of the city was separated from the ceremonial center and included both prosperous and less-prosperous houses, well-developed plumbing facilities, and broad boulevards. Indus valley traders journeyed inland to secure precious metals and overseas as far as the Persian Gulf, where their characteristic weights and measures have been found. The Indus valley culture disappeared about 1900 BCE; that is, the big cities grew to such an extent that they could no longer be supported by the farmers in the countryside while village life continued. The Indus valley script, consisting of symbols drawn on seals and pottery, was much more limited than either Mesopotamian writing or Egyptian writing and has not been successfully deciphered.

From small villages that characterized the north China plain for millennia, large settlements, but with modest populations, emerged at the end of the third millennium BCE. The earliest cities and states in the region appeared during the early second millennium. Erlitou at about 1700 BCE was 3 square kilometers with about forty thousand inhabitants; Zhengzhou at 1500 BCE was equally large; and Anyang at 1100 BCE may have had 100,000 people. These cities were composed of separate ceremonial areas, cemeteries, craft production areas, and residential areas. The cities were the capitals of territories that attempted to control natural resources and trade routes. Unification of these territories did not occur until the third century BCE.

Researchers have found a number of royal graves at the Anyang cemeteries. They are impressive subterranean structures entered by ramps and contain rich bronze vessels and jades and the bodies of retainers who accompanied royal figures into the afterlife. Researchers also have found “oracle bones.” These were the shoulder bones of cattle and also turtle shells that were inscribed with the first known writing in China. The people of Anyang threw the bones into fires and interpreted the resulting cracks to predict the success or failure of royal persons. After the demise of the earliest cities and of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE), China experienced a variety of governments and wars that led finally to unification.

The New World

In lowland Mesoamerica the earliest cities and states emerged in the Maya region during the early years of the common era. During the preceding two centuries, however, large cities and vast ceremonial complexes, such as the site of El Mirador, had appeared. El Mirador, however, had no characteristic Maya writing, and thus we do not know about the rulers who must have built the magnificent pyramids and temples there. The first villages in the Maya region appeared only about 1000 BCE, so the transition to states occurred much more rapidly in this region than in any of the Old World examples.

The earliest Maya cities were enormous. Tikal’s central core of monumental structures and plazas, ceremonial causeways and residential areas was not less than 16 square kilometers, and outlying structures extend much farther. The population of Tikal numbered not less than fifty thousand. Other cities were of the size and population of Tikal, but smaller cities existed as well, although the characteristics of Maya cities—the ceremonial structures, pyramids, causeways, inscribed stelae (stone slabs or pillars)—were shared by all of them. Some cities, such as Tikal, achieved control over their rival cities, but large cities such as Caracol were always rivals of Tikal. Maya script, originating during the third century CE—but perhaps having some earlier precursors, according to recent discoveries—recorded dynastic histories, alliances, and wars. During the last centuries of the first millennium CE, most of the Maya cities in the southern lowlands in Guatemala were substantially abandoned; in the northern lowlands in Mexico Maya cities adapted to new circumstances and survived.

In the Mesoamerican highlands in southern Mexico, the earliest cities and states at Monte Alban (in the modern state of Oaxaca) and Teotihuacan, not far from Mexico City, emerged during the last centuries BCE and the early centuries CE. Monte Alban, the capital of a three-valley region, was situated on an easily defended hill. It had a population of sixteen thousand and then grew to about thirty thousand before its collapse about 750 CE. Teotihuacan was probably the largest city of the ancient new world. At about 200 CE it covered 20 square kilometers and was occupied by an estimated 120,000 people.

The ceremonial complexes at Teotihuacan included six hundred pyramids, the largest of them flanking the “Street of the Dead.” Curiously, because Teotihuacan and the Maya had plenty of contacts, Teotihuacan had no writing system to record its complex transactions and administration. At Monte Alban people used a form of writing, limited and undeciphered, but it seems unconnected to the Maya script. The collapse of Teotihuacan was spectacular. A conflagration (apparently set by an unknown individual or group) destroyed the structures along the Street of the Dead but was not designed to engulf the residential apartment complexes of the city or the craft areas. The site was venerated by the subsequent Aztecs and is occupied today.

In South America, on the northern coast of Peru and in the central Andes Mountains, the first cities and states emerged during the early centuries CE in the former and about 600 CE in the latter. Although the two regions are different—the former requiring utilization of maritime resources in addition to maize cultivation dependent on irrigation, the latter having an agricultural regime of potatoes, quinoa (a pigweed whose seeds are used as food), and maize—they had similar lines of development. The earliest settlements were ceremonial centers; afterward cities emerged. On the coast the earliest states appeared in the Moche Valley, where elaborate burials during the first centuries CE were followed by the first cities.

In the central Andes two cites, Tiwanaku and Wari, emerged about 600 CE and grew to imposing dimensions—about 6 square kilometers. Wari was the more densely occupied of the two sites, with an estimated population of thirty thousand. The two sites were the centers of regional influence, and Wari, in southern Peru, established an empire that extended to the coast and to the north in the interior. Both sites collapsed during the last centuries of the first millennium CE. Wari presaged the rise of the Inca in many respects, establishing an imperial system, distinctive administrative architecture, a road system, and the earliest quipus (knotted ropes), which encoded a sophisticated recording system (although it was not a form of writing).

The earliest states worldwide emerged when populations were attracted to settlements, transforming them into cities and resulting in depopulation of the surrounding countryside. The earliest cities grew as defensive locations offering military protection from neighbors, as the locations of central shrines and pilgrimages, as environmentally favored locations for agricultural production, and/or as key points on trade and communication routes. The territories controlled by cities, and their states, varied considerably. Some states were small—city-states often co-existing with other city-states—whereas others were territorially expansive, such as Egypt, or centered on single cities that controlled their regions, such as Teotihuacan or Wari.

For human civilization there was no turning back from the way of life in the earliest cities and states. Larger states and empires emerged, trade and warfare increased, and the pace of innovation in social life increased exponentially and often in unpredictable ways.


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  2. Kemp, B. (1989). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a civilization. London: Routledge.
  3. Liu, L., & Chen, X. (2003). State formation in early China. London: Duckworth.
  4. Moseley, M. (2000). The Incas and their ancestors (2nd ed.). London: Thames and Hudson.
  5. Pollock, S. (2000). Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that never was. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Possehl, G. (2002). The Indus civilization: A contemporary perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.
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